First Lady of Northern Gardening

One hundred years ago, the Yukon’s First Lady, Martha Louise Black, set about making a statement with her gardens.

Black moved into the Commissioner’s Residence in Dawson City following her husband, George Black’s, appointment as 10th commissioner of the Yukon in 1912.

Upon consultation with her gardener, William Horkan, (whimsically known as “Me Hearty” Horkan), Black expanded the existing greenhouse, built a root cellar and grew vegetables.

The Black’s larder burst with radishes, peas, carrots, kohlrabi, leeks, turnips, salsify, potatoes, celeriac and vegetable marrow. The greenhouse supplied hot crops, such as tomatoes, which Black described as “meatier than those grown outside”.

In 1913 Black also ordered “mushroom spawn” from H.A. Dreer of Philadelphia. The spawn, or spores, arrived in bricks, which were broken up and used to inoculate the lawns and gardens surrounding the Commissioner’s home.

Martha Louise Black on the steps of the Commissioner’s Residence in Dawson City, Yukon PHOTO: MacBride Museum of Yukon History, 1989-1-033

Most of the edibles grown at the Commissioner’s Residence between 1912 and 1915 are popular staples in 21st century cuisine. However, a few items, such as the vegetable marrow and salsify, stand out as less familiar.

The traditional vegetable marrow is a hard-shelled, pale yellow to white fruit, similar to a squash. When fully ripe it keeps beautifully for many months and is used mainly as a stuffing vegetable.

Salsify is a root vegetable, similar in appearance to a carrot or parsnip. It was a real favourite with the Victorians, who nicknamed it “oyster plant” because of alleged similarities between its flavour and that of the delectable mollusk.

Marrow and salsify have both waned in popularity over the past century as North Americans have become accustomed to a year-round supply of tomatoes, peppers and zucchinis. But in Dawson, imported produce disappeared each fall with the last departure of the Yukon riverboats. Keeping a wide selection of storage vegetables added welcome variety to the winter menu.

While Black enjoyed her expanded vegetable garden, her true pride and passion was reserved for flowers. Black’s love of flowers was nurtured at a Catholic finishing school in Indiana, whose grounds she remembered as a “floral paradise”.

Prior to her tenure as First Lady of the Commissioner’s Residence, Black won a competition sponsored by the Yukon government for the purpose of showcasing the territory’s wildflowers at the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle.

Black pasted real wildflower specimens onto watercolour mounts in a style she termed “artistic botany”. With the help of friends, local children and even old-time Klondike miners, Black collected over 450 unique floral specimens and arranged them to create forms, such as an Irish harp made of four-leaf clovers and strung with wild grasses.

The purpose of the government-sponsored exhibit was not particularly scientific, nor merely aesthetic, it was also political. After Dawson’s population sank from a high of 30,000 to less than 10,000, the government was desperate to encourage human and financial investment in the territory.

Martha Black’s floral exhibit helped dispel misconceptions of the Yukon as a barren land, frozen, hostile and unpromising. The changes Black made to the landscape of the Commissioner’s Residence likewise reflected a combination of her political and aesthetic sensibilities.

Black expanded the foundation plantings and beds lining the boardwalks and pathways surrounding the official residence. The gardens overflowed with luxurious drifts of colour, giving the home an air of grandeur and stability that belied the territory’s waning fortune.

A 1914 seed order compiled by the Black’s gardener includes popular cottage garden varieties such as shasta daisies, delphiniums and California poppies, as well as more showy items like the giant castor bean plant. Special trees, including a ponderosa lemon, and an otaheite orange were also ordered for the greenhouse.

Martha Black incorporated perennials into her garden as well, wintering some outside and starting others in the greenhouse.

“We transplanted [bulbs] never later than 24th May, and soon the place was a riot of colour, with hundreds of daffodils, tulips, irises, jonquils, lilies of the valley, and even the old-fashioned bleeding heart,” Black wrote in her memoirs.

Black also noted that her pansies were particularly impressive,”growing to abnormal size, many four inches across.”

Pictures from the Black era show the Commissioner’s Residence looking very festive indeed, with nasturtiums clamouring up the verandah pillars, hanging baskets suspended from the balcony, and a porch crowded with houseplants soaking up the Yukon summer. Others pictures show smartly dressed visitors lounging on lawn furniture or dancing on the verandah.

The Black residence established a social standard for the rest of Dawson to aspire to. For a town anxious to shed its reputation as a cesspool of gambling and sin, neatly kept gardens were an important symbol of civility and morality for visitors and locals alike.

“Dawson had something to be proud of with one of the most gifted and charming women in the country to act as chatelaine,” commented one former visitor to the Black residence. “A visit to Government House was a trip into another country as far as the rest of us were concerned and did much to keep up our morale.”

Gardening is still a very popular pastime in Dawson today, and the sentiments of the Black era reverberate strongly in contemporary, non-profit projects such as Communities in Bloom.

Every year between July and August, out-of-territory judges arrive in Dawson to evaluate the community’s gardens, both public and private. Participation is intended to be self-rewarding, with the community benefitting from increased civic pride, community involvement, decreased vandalism, better property values, and improved tourism and marketing opportunities.

Martha Black would have approved.

“Let not the traveler remain away to scoff because we are in the Arctic regions,” she wrote in a promotional piece for the Dawson Daily News in 1909, “but let him come to be conquered alike by the magnificence of our scenery, the vastness of this golden territory, and the beauty and charm of our floral offerings.”

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